‘Illyria’ review: How Joseph Papp created Shakespeare in the Park

John Magaro plays Public Theater founder Joseph Papp and Fran Kranz plays legendary press agent Merle Debuskey in "Illyria," Richard Nelson's look at a forgotten chapter in the history of The Public Theater. / Joan Marcus

Theater audiences in New York know well the joys of sitting under the stars in Central Park for a free performance of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park.

Now we get the backstory, or a sliver of it, anyway. Richard Nelson’s new play “Illyria” (the title refers to the setting of “Twelfth Night”) covers a few months in the spring and summer of 1958 as a young Joseph Papp takes on City Hall and his own demons to establish what has become a revered institution.

The play, part of the Public’s celebration of 50 years at the Lafayette Street theater, follows Nelson’s low-key approach to drama seen in his widely praised Apple and Gabriel family cycles. (In program notes, the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, describes it as a “lack of overt theatricality.”)

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We’re flies on the walls, listening in on the conversation as Papp (John Magaro) and his colleagues talk about, well, almost anything. Some of the names are familiar, notably actress Colleen Dewhurst (Rosie Benton, who in fact looks a lot like a young Dewhurst), musician/composer David Amram (Blake DeLong), actor George C. Scott, who doesn’t actually appear but is talked about. A lot. Mostly, though, they’re just part of Papp’s gang, all struggling to make a go of it in a tough industry.

Magaro delivers a complex Papp, a man bursting with ideas and insecurities, only occasionally showing the bluster and bravado of the theatrical giant to come. But ultimately the slice-of-life presentation feels lacking. We get only snippets of important bits like Papp’s battle with the city parks department over whether to charge patrons (he didn’t want to, fearful that no one would come were they forced to pay), and his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee where he took the Fifth Amendment, costing him his day job at CBS.

Annoyingly, the actors almost always speak in quiet, conversational tones, making it difficult to catch every word. Still, anyone fascinated by theatrical history will enjoy the anecdotes, like when Papp brought the flatbed truck that served as his stage into the park using a “borrowed” garbage truck.

And it’s amusing to note that even in those early days, productions were plagued with worries about rain and noise from airplanes overhead. Some things never change — and in the case of Shakespeare in the Park, that is a very good thing.